On the comeback trail: Rafael Nadal's big test is Roland Garros
The Spainards's recovery trail will be complete only at Paris when he succeeds in defending his Roland Garros title in May.
Comebacks in sports make for a good story. Be it heart-warming or heart-breaking, inspiring or disappointing; or, as in Lance Armstrong's case, rather shocking. At present, Rafael Nadal is on such a comeback trail that could either be inspiring or heart-breaking.
Sport thrives on resurgence and revival. In tennis, an individual sport, this reawakening is well celebrated and lampooned at. Bjorn Borg's unsuccessful comeback with an outdated wooden racket in 1991 was ridiculed whereas Monica Seles' revival in 1995, after a horrific stabbing, to go on and win 20 tour titles is part tennis folklore. How Nadal's resurgence culminates into in the present ultra competitive world of men' singles will be very interesting to follow.
After a seven-month injury lay-off, Nadal returned at the VTR Open in Chile only to lose the final to Argentina's Horacio Zeballos. In his second tournament of the year, the Brasil Open at Sao Paulo, the Spaniard overcame a spirited David Nalbandian in straight sets, but the panache and intensity of 'Rafa' was missing. The field of players was not that great to boost about a successful return for the former world No. 1. Nadal seemed to be concentrating on his knees and held back a lot in both the ATP World Tour 250 series.
At the Abierto Mexicano Telcel Acapulco Open, Nadal was in for his toughest test since his comeback. After disappointing his fans last year with a series of withdrawals from the Olympics, US Open and an expected Australian Open return foiled by a stomach bug, the talk of him coming back as a mere shadow of the Nadal of old was picking up. After cruising through to the semi-finals of the Acapulco Open, fellow country man Nicolas Almagro awaited Nadal. Almagro, playing possibly the best tennis of his career, stifled Nadal early on. With a break of serve early on, Nadal was playing catch up in the first set and Almagro's cross court returns seemed too powerful for Nadal to even reach the ball let alone return it.
But Nadal hung on getting the big points at the right time. He was down 0-40 on his serve on many occasions but he managed to save the breakpoints almost every time taking the first set 7-5. In the second, Nadal got some fluency into his game as his trademark top spin forehand started to fall in place. His serves got better and in no time he had the second set 6-4. Seeded No.1 at the event, David Ferrer was his opponent in the final and this is where it was expected that Nadal's knee would be tested. The pocket monster Ferrer is undoubtedly among the top two returners in Men's singles behind a certain Serb, Novak Djokovic. But a score line of 6-0, 6-2 did little justice to Ferrer's reputation. A powerful performance by the Mallorcan had the world sit up and watch.
Tennis fans had been robbed of the excitement of witnessing the Fab Four for nearly a year and Nadal's easy win in Mexico was definitely good news. Ferrer is currently the No.4 ahead of Nadal in the current ATP rankings. The 26-year-old now has confirmed his participation at the BNP Paribas Open with a possible quarter-final clash with Roger Federer. But this is hard court. Nadal's least favourite surface. He did well at the exhibition match ahead of the event against Juan Martin del Potro, though it is no indication that Nadal will do good and take his place back among the greats - Djokovic and Federer - of this generation.
At Indian Wells, the field will be much stronger than the South American clay court tourneys and to see Nadal with his bulging biceps and rocket forehands will be a delight. Many make comebacks, many fail, but to return as the best, Nadal would need to rely on more than his skills. Federer has defied age whereas Djokovic has taken fitness to a whole together another level. In Nadal's absence, Andy Murray has learned the lesson of perseverance. Nadal will have to rely on hunger, hunger to perform, hunger to win. To get back to winning ways, to able to compete in different surfaces and to hold his own in the ultra competitive circuit are all but baby steps in Nadal's recovery trail. His comeback will be complete only at Paris when he succeeds in defending his Roland Garros title in May.